“The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.” – Ansel Adams
Some Thoughts on Digital vs. Film Processing
I will update Ansel’s quote just a bit for today’s digital age. The original file is now equivalent to Ansel’s negative. The post-processing is the performance of the file which leads to the print or other use. Instead of heading to a dark room full of chemicals and diminished red light we can work in a lighted environment. We now create changes that are repeatable to an exacting standard. In the past to pull a print in the darkroom you had to dodge and burn using your hands or other objects to interrupt or extend the lighting time on the paper. You could spend hours trying to get an image printed just as you would like it. And good luck with being able to create the same image again.
Now that we are in the digital age we can create repeatable results and can tickle every pixel in the file to do our bidding. Photography software has been improving at an incredible rate to help us in developing our imagery. I’d like to talk about revisiting older RAW files to see how the new processing tools can breath new life into them. This can be done using jpegs also, but you will not have near the latitude as RAW files. When jpegs are saved a relatively large portion of non-visible information is tossed to the side never to be seen again.
There are wonderful reasons to use jpegs. I capture them all the time. Benefits include having the image look great right out of the camera for instant sharing on social media. Or, if you tell the camera to give you a black and white or another photo style the information is baked right into the file. But those same benefits of jpegs become liabilities when you want to make larger images and dig down into the data to pull out all the detail and color that is available in the RAW.
Best of Both Worlds
Here’s the best part. You don’t have to do one or the other. Today’s cameras can capture RAW plus jpeg giving you the options with the best of both worlds. Camera cards and storage memory have come down in price to a point where storage of the extra files is not a price decision. This is especially important when it comes to making better images from older files as new software solutions are formulated.
Aurora HDR *
I haven’t been a great fan of a lot of the HDR programs in the past as they ‘looked’ like HDR. Many of the effects included way too much saturation, ghosting in high contrast areas, and noise. MAC users now have a new option from MacPhun called Aurora HDR. It has very precise controls that can help you show the detail you wish along with the density range you need to cover with relative ease. Let’s take a look at an exposure sequence I created in 2014 that I was not happy with the final result I was able to achieve at that time.
Three image bracket of landscape scene in Sedona, Arizona
As you can see in the first image, the sky is exposed correctly, and shadow areas are blocked up. The middle image has the red rocks looking just about right. The last exposure has a place to add lots of detail to what will be the shadow areas of the image.
Working with various settings makes it possible to pull up detail in the shadows while still controlling highlights in a believable fashion. As I study this I may have added a bit of saturation and a bit more ‘grit’ to the scene, but that was an artistic choice. Not one forced on me by the limitations of previous versions of HDR software. When processing there is a significant number of presets to get you close to your final result. Then you have the opportunity tweak many settings to your taste.
Presets across the bottom of the navigation processing window. There are different sets of presets from which to choose or you can build and save your recipes. The right-hand side of the window shows just a few of the possible tool adjustment settings available. Scrolling reveals many more possibilities.
Black and White – Nik Silver FX Pro 2
I can take the image to a whole other look by working with my favorite black and white conversion software from Google. Nik Silver FX Pro 2 * is a solid way to move the image to monochrome. There are options for micro-sharpening, tweaking various tones with complete control.
Black and white processed image starting with the Aurora HDR from above
Remember we talked about darkroom dodging and burning. After the photo was converted with Nik a blank layer was created in Adobe’s Photoshop. The Blend Mode was changed to Soft Light. By ‘painting’ on this layer with a black or white brush set to a low opacity, you can dodge and burn in a non-destructive fashion. If it is going to be an involved process with lots of dark and light adjustments, you can add two blank layers. Then paint on one layer with black for burning and the other with white for dodging.
I have bee accused of ‘cheating’ because of my use of the new software tools available. One of the greats of our time would have been right there beside me. I’ll share with you another quote from Ansel that will indicate that he would have been one of the first photographers to move into digital processing. He was also a bit of a sage predicting the time when digital processing would become of use to photographers. Below find the quote from his autobiography published in 1984.
“In the electronic age, I am sure that scanning techniques will be able to achieve prints of extraordinary subtlety from the original negative scores. If I could return in 20 years or so I would hope to see astounding interpretations of my most expressive images. It is true no one could print my negatives as I did, but they might well get more out of them by electronic means. Image quality is not the product of a machine, but of the person who directs the machine, and there are no limits to imagination and expression.” Ansel Adams
Yours in creative Photography, Bob
** The Google Nik Suite of software is now free